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September 8, 2015
We’re happy to welcome our 2015 Toronto Book Awards blogger, Kim MacMullen! Kim will be reading and reviewing the finalists for this year’s Toronto Book Awards, which will be awarded on October 15, 2015.
First up is Fifteen Dogs, an apologue by André Alexis (Coach House Books). André Alexis will be reading at the The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 27th, at 11:30 AM and again at 4:00 PM at the Toronto Book Awards Tent.
Opening in the middle of an Olympian boys’ night out at Toronto’s historic Wheat Sheaf Tavern, André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs begins with a bet. Apollo, god of the sun and knowledge, bets Hermes, messenger of the gods and all-around trickster, that any animal, no matter the species, will die unhappy if they are granted human intelligence (which Apollo dubs “an occasionally useful plague”). Intended originally as an indictment of humans and their self-inflated sense of importance and cleverness, the wager is executed via fifteen Toronto-area dogs in a nearby veterinary clinic, to whom Apollo grants the gift of thought and language. Managing to escape the clinic thanks to their new-found intellectual prowess, the pack immediately starts dropping members, which prompts the reader to realize that the gods’ wager, by its very nature, is dependent on the dogs’ deaths, and that the title of the book effectively acts as the beginning of a heartbreaking countdown. What began as fifteen becomes twelve almost immediately, and continues to diminish from there in the service of the most cruel divine intervention since the Book of Job.
As they explore their new capacities, the intrinsic nature of each dog—derived from their lifelong experiences, treatment, likes and dislikes—is amplified into a distinct personality that starts to take over their instinctual behaviours. Prince is a poet, Atticus is a leader, Frick and Frack are impulsive, Majnoun is cautious. These personalities begin to clash as Lord of the Flies-style leadership questions arise, and their one commonality, their status as dogs, can’t keep them together as their focus on accepting or rejecting their new language drives them apart and into like-minded subgroups or isolation. Like humans, their disparate personalities and ideals become more important than their physical sameness, and they find themselves unable to stay together. This, however, is problematic—as Atticus, a Neapolitan Mastiff, points out, “a dog is no dog if he does not belong,” and, as the pack quickly finds out, they not only have trouble relating to each other, they are rejected by the other dogs, too. They have been othered by the gods’ meddling, unable to fully relate to anyone or anything. They make do with what relationships they can manage with each other and humans (resulting in a canine vigil that Millennial readers may liken to a certain soul-crushing episode of Futurama), but theirs is an ultimately lonely fate.
Almost impossibly, the sad, sad subject matter doesn’t necessarily mean that Alexis’ apologue is wholly depressing. The language is vivid and honest and often startlingly beautiful in its perfect phrasing (“There was always some child… draped around his neck like a kerchief of monkey,” and, when one dog is lifted by the scruff of his neck and commanded to speak: “Benjy could, of course, in his limited way, talk. What he could not do was speak while his neck was learning the weight of his arse”). And as much as Fifteen Dogs is a heartbreaking and humbling and disempowering book about loneliness, powerlessness and death in the face of divine whims, it is also a story about love. And, mercifully, just when things can’t get any darker and the gods can’t get any crueler, there is the tiniest flicker of hope when the book ends on a note that suggests that even the fickle, impassive hearts of Olympus can be softened, if only for a moment, by the love of a good doggy.
Kim MacMullen is a copywriter from Barrie, ON. She has a degree in English Literature from Laurentian University, and, after spending two years in Toronto, she now lives in Barrie with her husband and their substantial collections of books, sports memorabilia, and video games.
Which awards did André Alexis’s first novel, Childhood, win? Check out our website, and send the answer to firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered in a draw to win a prize pack of all the shortlisted Toronto Book Awards books, signed by the authors!
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter!
Contest closes September 23, 2015.